There is no director alive more connected to the hearts, minds and mysteries of women than Spain’s Pedro Almodovar. With a string of masterworks stretching from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to All About My Mother and Talk to Her, Almodovar is a filmmaker worth following anywhere. In Volver (“return”), a movie that leaps off the screen to take its place in your dreams, the writer-director tells a ghost story that manages to include lust, incest, rape and murder. You’ll laugh, too — wildly, helplessly — because to Almodovar, laughter is life.
The opening scene is set in La Mancha (Almodovar’s birthplace), at a cemetery where Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and her sister Sole (Lola Duenas) fight the wind to clean the gravestones of their parents, who died in bed in a fire. Or did they? Almodovar keeps his movie as intimate as a whisper that makes us lean in to uncover its dark secrets. For starters, the sisters have an aunt (Chus Lampreave) who claims their mom, Irene (the miraculous Carmen Maura reunited with Almodovar after seventeen years), has returned from the dead to take care of her. No one doubts it, especially Sole, who passes off Irene as a Russian and puts her to work in the illegal beauty salon she runs in her apartment.
When Raimunda is around, ghost mom hides under a bed, coming out to help only when Raimunda’s teen daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) claims to have stabbed Raimunda’s husband, Paco (Antonio de la Torre), when he tried to rape her. That’s when Raimunda hides the body in a freezer in a restaurant, where she serves food to a visiting film crew. Throw in neighbor Augustina (Blanca Portillo), who’s dying of cancer but not before she adds a new twist.
Got that? No matter. Plot is merely Almodovar’s way into the souls of his women. With the help of six extraordinary actresses, who shared the acting prize at Cannes, Almodovar crafts one of the year’s best films. Cruz, never more voluptuous (think Sophia Loren in Two Women) or vulnerable, is a force of nature fully deserving her Oscar buzz. She’s that good. Volver is Almodovar’s passionate tribute to the community of women — living and dead — who nurtured him. Through the transformative power of his art — carried on the wings of Alberto Iglesias’ exhilarating score — we feel their presence. You do not want to miss this one. by Peter Travers